We Bought a Zoo

After several artistic disappointments and commercial flops (“Vanilla Sky,” Elizabethtown”), Cameron Crow’s “We Bought a Zoo” marks his first film in over a decade that’s half decent and mildly engaging.

 

 

It’s not exactly a return to form, as the film is flawed in many ways, but compared to the disastrous “Elizabethtown,” in 2005, which even a talented actress like Kirsten Dunst could not salvage, “We Bought a Zoo” exhibits the humanistic touch we have come to expect from Crowe.  Almost out of desperation, there may be too much heart in this sweet-natured but harmless, innocuous, and ultimately listless  film.

 

How long do you give a filmmaker carte blanche to prove himself?  We might have overestimated Crowe, based on two or three pictures that he made long ago, including the charming 80s romance “Say Anything,” and the 1996 “Jerry Maguire,” his most accomplished and most enjoyable film to date.  I had mixed feelings about “Almost Famous,” a personal film based on Crowe’s experiences as a young reporter at Rolling Stone magazine, but the acting, especially by Francis McDormand and Kate Hudson, was good.

 

A point of departure, “We Bought a Zoo” is not an original or personal tale. It’s adapted to the screen from Benjamin Mee’s memoir, whose full, much longer title is “We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo, and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever. “  The BBC has made quite a good documentary about Mee’s experiences.

 

The movie tries too hard to please, or to use Crowe’s words, “to make the audience feel joy at what it means to be alive.” To accomplish that goal, Crowe goes out of his way to transform a tale of loss into something more redemptive, heartwarming, and inspirational.

The best thing in the film is Matt Damon, Hollywood’s best actor to portray ordinary men, who gives a graceful and dominant performance as Benjamin, a man who through a series of circumstances, but also risk and whim, buys a zoo and moves there with his family.

 

Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “27 Dresses”), who adapted the story for the big screen with Crowe, uses Mee’s predicament as an inexperienced, unexpected zoo director as a premise for a mildly engaging tale.  The format (or formula) for what turns out to be a sentimental and even  corny flick is that of a “fish out of water.”   Indeed, Initially, Benjamin is like an alien in a foreign land–he knows nothing about the place, its inhabitants, and its values.

 

In its good moments, which are not many, the saga depicts vividly the backstage life, the behind the scenes, of a zoo, and what it takes to live on a zoo on a day-to-day basis, with animals as “members” of Benjamin’s extended family.

In his effort to attract a multi-generational audience for his picture, Crowe tries to blend comedy, drama, family, and a spirit of optimism, all to to varying degrees of success.  At the end of the film, which is episodic and sharply uneven, you may ask yourself, is that all there is to the story?